Spy Vs. Spy

Roberts and Owen go head to head and heart to heart in 'Duplicity' *** ( 3 STARS)

March 20, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Nothing is as it seems" in the Julia Roberts-Clive Owen corporate-espionage comedy-drama Duplicity. Take that as a blanket spoiler-alert. The strategy of the movie is to keep viewers alternately engaged and bemused, knowing they'll be tricked while feeling pleasurably gamed.

Whipping audiences through multiple intrigues across the globe, Duplicity is like Mr. and Mrs. Smith with an intricate, real story and juicy cloak and dagger instead of hyperbolic gunplay. It's an odd duck: a labor-intensive piece of light entertainment. The film exposes its heavy narrative machinery as it hurtles breathlessly along, yet it succeeds because of the dexterity of Tony Gilroy, the writer-director, and the star power of Owen and Roberts.

Gilroy asks the basic question, "How can you grow to trust the person you want and need to trust most - the one you love?" Then he hands it over to stars portraying spies who are experts at deception. No one is better than Owen at displaying supple humor and emotion without blowing his hard-guy cover. His performance should delight the millions who thought he should have been the new James Bond. Roberts gets to focus her intelligence and ebullience and deliver a new, mature modulation on her trademark energy and her often-humorous combination of gnarliness and glamour. One of her last decent star roles was in Mona Lisa Smile (2003). In Duplicity, she invents a Mona Lisa laugh, chuckle and giggle.

In Gilroy's skillful, witty follow-up to his writing-directing debut, Michael Clayton, he continues to exercise his talent for baiting a narrative and getting viewers to jump to it. The movie goes back and forth in time as it hops between Dubai, Rome, London and New York. Gilroy moves quickly to keep the tension taut on the cutthroat rivalry driving two giant soap-and-cosmetics companies. At the same time, he pulls us into the romance and competition that propel the personal and professional lives of CIA agent Claire Stenwick (Roberts) and MI6 agent Ray Koval (Owen) throughout the new millennium.

They experience an earthshaking one-night stand at the U.S. Embassy's Fourth of July party in Dubai, when, despite coital bliss, she drugs him and steals confidential material from his briefcase. We next see them in New York, five years later, when both have left their government posts for lucrative private practice. On his first assignment at a Manhattan job, Ray becomes Claire's field agent.

He "runs" her while she works undercover in the white-collar war between one explosively ruthless CEO played by Paul Giamatti (their employer) and his sworn enemy, an august soap baron played by Tom Wilkinson. Both Giamatti and Wilkinson make marvelous comic monsters - one nouveau riche, one old school, neither with any check on ruthlessness or ego.

In a good way, the characters of Ray and Claire resemble matched sets of those Russian stacking dolls that open to reveal ever-smaller replicas of themselves. As Gilroy defines those characters minute by minute, they become accessible as humans, and the world around them comes to seem a more threatening place.

Gilroy generates romantic tension from the question of whether their spy skills are built into what they love about each other. I think he could have provided a more robust emotional buildup to his payoff, but by the end you do want to spend even more time with these people.

In a sequel, maybe Claire could hire Simon Baker's character from The Mentalist and Tim Roth's character from Lie to Me to settle definitively who can trust whom.

Duplicity

(Universal Pictures) Starring Julia Roberts, Clive Owen. Directed by Tony Gilroy. Rated PG-13 for language, sexuality and some drug use. Time 125 minutes.

Writer/ director Tony Gilroy on game of love Page 3

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